Category: Orkney Dialect and literature.

GMB 100: The Centenary of the Birth of George Mackay Brown 1921-2021.

George Mackay Brown at Ness Road, Stromness.

[Tom Muir, Engagement & Exhibitions Officer]

On the 17th October 1921, in a small house in Stromness, a baby boy was born. The youngest of six children born to John Brown, a tailor and postman, and Mhairi Mackay. She was a Gaelic speaking native of Sutherland who had come to work at Mackay’s Stromness Hotel, which was owned by a relative of her family. Poverty and ill health plagued his youth. Tuberculosis saw him being declared unfit for military service at the outbreak of World War II.

The Orkney Blast, a military newspaper that was written and compiled in the Stromness Hotel and printed by The Orcadian in Kirkwall.

The influx of service personnel into Orkney was generally welcomed by local people, but George’s blood boiled when he read the army poem ‘Bloody Orkney’, which lambasted his much loved native islands. It starts with the lines:

This bloody town’s a bloody cuss
No bloody trains, no bloody bus,
And no one cares for bloody us
In bloody Orkney.

While the poem is attributed to a Canadian, Captain Hamish Blair, it is in reality a standard military poem into which you inserted the name of your posting. There was even one for the Libyan desert, with heat and sand replacing the cold and ice. George picked up his pen and wrote a letter to the local military newspaper, The Orkney Blast, which was printed on the 4th June 1943:

“…Whenever I mention to servicemen stationed in Orkney that I have never seen a city or a theatre, and that trams and trains exist only in my imagination, I am answered by looks of shocked amazement or amused pity. I don’t quite know why this should be; for I have met servicemen who, until they came to Orkney, had never seen the sea, had never beheld a farm-house or a haystack, and had never watched a fish, other than a goldfish, swim in the water, yet I do not regard them as abnormal creatures.

in spite of this mutual tolerance and good will I believe there is an undercurrent of animosity, very faint but persistent, between the civilians and the Servicemen of Orkney.there is a pernicious tendency among men of the services, admittedly the more illiterate ones – to regard Orcadians as ignorant and debased yokels of the most primitive type!We welcome you to our islands as brothers and comrades-in-arms. If you like Orkney, we are glad and thank you. If you don’t, better landings next time!”

Orkney Islands author of Letters From Hamnavoe, GMB - Stromness, Orkney Islands, Scotland, UK
George Mackay Brown. The Orkney Library & Archive.

George would later find his place in the world by attending the adult education college at Newbattle Abbey near Edinburgh (under the guidance of the warden, the Orcadian poet Edwin Muir) and later Edinburgh University. Here he worked on his poetry, drawing on inspiration from his island home. The influence of Dylan Thomas can be seen in his poem about his home town, Hamnavoe:

My father passed with his penny letters
Through closes opening and shutting like legends
When barbarous with gulls
Hamnavoe’s morning broke

On the salt and tar steps. Herring boats,
Puffing red sails, the tillers
Of cold horizons, leaned
Down the gull-gaunt tide

And threw dark nets on sudden silver harvests.
A stallion at the sweet fountain
Dredged water, and touched
Fire from steel-kissed cobbles.

George Mackay Brown by Alexander Moffat. This portrait can currently be seen in the Baikie Drawing Room of the Orkney Museum.

George would go on to write short stories and novels, as well as continuing with his poetry. He became a highly respected writer around the world and his works have been published in many languages but he remained living in his native Stromness. He drew on the islands’ history for inspiration, especially the Orkneyinga Saga and the story of St Magnus in particular.

.As a Catholic convert George saw in St Magnus all that was good and pure contained within the character of this Orkney Jarl. He was guided by his faith and forgave (or ignored) references to a more warlike Magnus, considering him a martyr who died in order to bring peace to Orkney. George died on the 13th April 1996. His funeral in St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall took place on the 16th April; St Magnus Day. He would have loved that.

George with Gypsy, the cat who inspired ‘Letters to Gypsy’. Gunnie Moberg Collection, Orkney Library & Archive.

In this centenary year the Orkney Museum will be paying tribute to the writer by holding an exhibition that will tell his story and feature his works. When I approach an exhibition like this I want to make it personal, to tell a story in the person’s own words, where possible. Using George’s autobiography, ‘For the Islands I Sing’, along with his poetry and extracts from his stories and newspaper articles, I want to give a balanced view of the man and the influences that shaped his writing and his life.

This is only one of a whole series of events that will be held during the year to make the centenary, either live or online (we are not in a position to plan these things yet). The Orkney Museum exhibition will run from June-October, to take in the date of George’s birthday. We will be working with our colleagues at Stromness Museum and Orkney Library & Archive to create the exhibition. I am indebted to Jenny Brown Associates for permission to quote George’s work throughout the exhibition.

Grave of Orkney Islands writer George M Brownat Warbeth Kirkyard, Stromness, Orkney, Scotland.
George Mackay Brown’s grave at Warbeth Cemetery, just outside Stromness. Around the gravestone, carved by Frances Pelly, are George’s own words. ‘Carve the runes then be content with silence’.

For more information see the links below.

GMB Fellowship

The Eynhallow Laments

How the Fin Folk Lost Eynhallow. Bryce Wilson.

Tom Muir, Engagement & Exhibitions Officer

During the Orkney Storytelling Festival in 2019 one of the guest storytellers, Gordon MacLellan, invited Fran Flett Hollinrake and myself to contribute something towards an environmental arts project called CelebrationEarth! The idea was that it would be a storytelling event in 2020, but that obviously wasn’t possible. Instead we contributed other things. Fran, who is the Visitor Attraction Officer at St Magnus Cathedral, decided to combine music and story to give an account of the spiritual and the strange within the cathedral. You can view it in another blog page (see ‘St Magnus Cathedral’ in the Main Menu).

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Gordon MacLellan, storyteller, poet and artist.

For my piece I decided to revisit poetry, for the first time in years. A storytelling event was fine, but this saw me outside of my comfort zone. I decided to focus on the tiny island of Eynhallow; Eyinhelga in Old Norse, meaning the holy island. I decided to write three prose poems that dealt with different aspects of Eynhallow. I used folklore, medieval history and an invented boating disaster in the 19th century as the basis for the poems. They take the form of three laments, giving the trilogy the title of ‘The Eynhallow Laments’

The Fin Folk’s Lament

There was a folk tale about how this was one of the vanishing islands of the Fin Folk, a magical race of beings who lived under the sea, but whose summer homes were islands that float on the surface of the sea. These islands were normally invisible to mortal eyes. A local man, whose new wife had been abducted by a Fin Man, seeks his revenge and gains the knowledge of how to see the island and to win it from the Fin Folk. He and his three sons reach the island, but the Fin Folk conjure up magical sights to frighten them off, but to no avail. The island was taken when nine rings of salt was sown around the island and nine crosses cut into its turf. The youngest son had big hands, so the last ring was not completed. I decided to write it from the perspective of a Fin child who was there that day and witnessed the tragedy that befell her people.

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Eynhallow Church and monastery, 12th century. Gordn MacLellan.

Brother Dagfinn’s Lament

The second poem is told from the perspective of a monk living on Eynhallow in the 12th century, and draws heavily from the Orkneyinga Saga. He is at peace now, but he reminisces about witnessing the martyrdom of St Magnus and his own fate for disobeying the orders of jarl and bishop. Again, the constant here are the selkies that sing on the shore. They appeared in the first poem and will play a more prominent role in the third and final one.

Eynhallow (centre) as seen from Rousay. Max Fletcher.

Clara’s Lament

The third, and final poem had to be the most challenging for me. It is set in the 19th century and told from the perspective of a young woman who had just been widowed when her husband’s boat is capsized in the Eynhallow Sound. It brings in her grief and her feeling of hopelessness. Here the old tales and beliefs come together to create the final conclusion. I had originally wanted to have a young woman read this, but Covid 19 and the lockdown made that more difficult than it would have been normally. Having to read it myself I decided to just be me, no Monty Python type impressions of a female voice. It is not comedy. So, I had to read it as the writer, but using my storytelling skills I had to put as much emotion into it as I could. I had to feel Clara’s grief and despair. It is not up to me to say whether it worked or not, but I did have tears in my eyes after I had finished recording it in a small attic bedroom in our home.

One of the powerful ‘roosts’ that lie on either side of Eynhallow. For the scale of these waves, note the seagull in the bottom right of the photograph. Max Fletcher.
Selkies. Tom Muir.

For more information on the CelebrationEarth! project, follow this link.

For more information about Eynhallow, follow this link to Max Fletcher’s excellent ‘Rousay Remembered’ website.

Between Islands Online Exhibition

The Orkney Museum is excited to announce that the Between Islands Online Exhibition is now live. It looks at the heritage, arts and crafts of the three island groups, the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland. Here is a brief introduction to the exhibition.

Alex MacDonald, coordinator of the Between Islands Project writes:

I am delighted to say that the first of our Between Islands museum exhibitions is now online!

Orkney: Between Islandsexplores the inspiration and legacy of islands in the arts, crafts and literature of Orkney, Shetland and the Outer Hebrides. Material includes books and prints documenting island journeys and scenery, paintings by island artists, portraits of island writers and their publications, and examples of island crafts, with a particular focus on Harris Tweed and Fair Isle knitting, but also exploring the lesser-known Orkney and Shetland tweed industries and the promotion of contemporary makers by The New Craftsmen. Featured objects are drawn from the permanent collections of Orkney Museum, Orkney Library and Archive, Shetland Museum and Archives, and Museum agus Tasglann nan Eilean.

Material from the partner museums is complemented by historic photographs, archive recordings, interviews with contemporary artists and craftspeople, paintings, objects and links to makers and collections across Scotland which further illuminate the stories behind featured objects, places and personalities.

The Orkney Museum collection has been curated by Rachel Boak, and designed and produced by Rebecca Marr and Mark Jenkins of cultural heritage and arts creative partnership Kolekto.  Many thanks to them for all their hard work in creating this resource. 

Walter Traill Dennison and John Firth – their contribution to the collection of words in the Orkney Dialect

Orkney Library & Archives, Tom Kent Collection.

Dr Tom Rendall

Walter Traill Dennison (1825 -1894) and John Firth (1838-1922) had a keen in interest in folklore and the heritage of Orkney and both writers also realised the value of the way people spoke using a dialect words interspersed with Standard Scottish English.

What I offer in this blog is a selection of their glossaries of words along with short articles setting out their interest in the local tongue and their rationale for collecting about 700 words each and including them in publications.

I have chosen some words rather than copy out the entire glossaries as I felt that this would be less akin to a dictionary and more a celebration of the dialect. It is important to point out that many of the words appear in both glossaries but Dennison had some that Firth did not include and, indeed Firth noted words that did not appear in Dennison’s work.

Walter Traill Dennison.

Walter Traill Dennison – Glossary of words in the Orkney dialect

Below is an abstract from Dennison’s preamble:

It would have been to the author a pleasant task to trace these old-world words, through all their varied and multiform windings, up to their original source in the Sanscrit language. To do this by dogmatic assertion, and hap-hazard guesses, might be an easy task; such guesses and assertions could be taken – as they often are – for scientific truth: but few as the words contained in the glossary are, to trace their etymology in a philosophical manner would require an amount of extensive and varied scholarship wholly beyond possible attainment by the author.

The two things attempted in this glossary are, to enable the reader to understand the meaning of the words, and to give some idea of the orthoepy of the Orkney dialect. The charming Orcadian patios is impossible to convey by representations to the eye -it can only reach the mind through the ear.

It was thought unnecessary to state the parts of speech to which the words belong, this being sufficiently obvious from the explanations.

In order to shew the pronunciation of the words, an orthography has been adopted, wherever this was possible, in accordance with the sound of letters in English. An English word, where it was thought necessary, has been given to shew the exact sound of the word explained.

Excerpts from the Glossary


Abble delicate,feeble

Alinerly solely,in particular

Anunder under


Beufsae clumsy,ungainly in shape

Boosam active,busy

Brullye great confusion and turmoil


Canteelmas idle/ill-natured gossip

Clashmacleevers idle tales

Cullye to cuddle or soothe by endearments


Dightan sheul a shovel for cleaning the byre

Dovened soft and sapless,withered up

Disjaskit having the appearance of neglect or disrepair


Eerison short prayer

Eggle to incite

Eum outrageously mad


Favillo a lumpish,lazy,clumsy person

Flawan telling fibs / spouting lies

Futh a large number/a great deal


Gafter a loud laugh

Gang wi go with/courted with

Glaickit light, giddy, rash

Glundy gluttonous


Habbergaws to blunder or make mistakes in reading

Harkin whispering

Henskly hurriedly or abruptly

Hosted coughed

Humelsho great confusion and turmoil


Ilty ill-nature / temperamental

Ime grime (on the outside of cooking utensils

Ims’d made/make haste (“imse theesel” – get going)


Jobbed pierced

Jund a heavy fall lor large piece of a sdubstance


Kemperman a champion

Klurty clumsy

Kniff nimble/smart

Kreest to press (verb) or pressure (noun)


Langersam weariness and lonely/longing for something

Leet to listen/appear not to know (“never leet thoo heard it)

Lippers ripples on the water

Lock quantity of anything/ a lot (“that is a lock of folk”)


Main patience,endurance

Menye company/party gathering for the night

Merky marrow

Mooran snowing heavily

Murgas turmoil/disturbance


Nebbid from “neb” – the beak of a fowl

Neud mirk extremely dark

Nouster landing place for boats


Old man’s milk mixture of milk,eggs,sugar and whisky

Oro things very small in size (plural)

Owsen oxen


Plunky a trick

Pone a petty oath

Preeve to taste or try

Prowley a sharp scolding (or corporal punishment)


Quack “in a quack2 – in a bit of a state

Quarkie cough / clear throat with a choking sound


Ranty exceedingly cheerful

Reuan nodding through sleep or tiredness

Riggan the backbone

Rullye a great rush


Sarro any uncommon/unpalatable mixture of food

Skatfu voracious/greedy and gluttonous

Skeet a covered taunt or insinuation

Skreevis a violent wind

Spragled sprawled

Spunder to gallop

Sturt stir/disturbance

Suck dirty/ confused mess


Tame stretched out (“i-tame”)

Tapsquare ready to take offence

Teedburro moving vapours over land or water

Toy a woman’s hat

Tray long,tedious and wearisome


Undeemin enormous/ large or numerous

Unstowly blustery/unsettled weather

Usmal dismal/dark(often applied to the human face)


Whiman insinuating

Wharon sufficient support

Wilk a periwinkle


Yark suspicious/afraid of

Yowling howling

John Firth – Glossary of words in the Orkney dialect

We will now turn to John Firth who lived in the parish of Firth on the Mainland of Orkney, He was a joiner and millwright and was well respected in the community. Firth also had a keen interest in recording many of the activities such as threshing and farming as well as the traditions surrounding births, marriage and death. He was also interested in the dialect and below is an excerpt from his chapter on old Orkney words followed by some words from the glossary in his book Reminiscences of An Orkney Parish.

‘For a period now extending to at least half a century, I have taken a profound and absorbing interest in the old words, phrases, rhymes and proverbs peculiar to our Orcadian vernacular and dialect, and although I am now considerably in years beyond the allotted span of threescore and ten, my enthusiasm and zeal in this, to me most fascinating pursuit is as keen and exacting as at any period of my lifetime.

‘It has invariably been my custom and practice, on hearing a word unfamiliar or new to me, particularly when coming from a person well advanced in years, to immediately, or as soon as favourable opportunity presented itself, jot it down. In this way I have accumulated a collection of about 700 words, which I have arranged into a kind of glossary, and for each word I have given its nearest English equivalent.

‘Some of the words are at the present day obsolete, but all were in common and frequent usage less than half a century ago.

In spite of the changes wrought in more recent generations, and amid the constant and ever-increasing additions and modifications, the old Orkney dialect, with its quaint and peculiar diction, is destined to no immediate or early extinction, and wherever Orcadians meet, in all parts of the world, its rich and beautiful accent and melodious tones awaken the most tender sentiments and emotions, and recall the most hallowed associations and cherished memories.’

Excerpts from the Glossary


Aar dislike / fear

Amis wel deserved punishment

Amsho mild form of oath

Atfares behavior

Atifore shame or regret at certain words or actions


Blide mate feast after a birth

Brigstones pavement at the door of a house (the brigs)

Broden impudent/pert

Buddo term of endearment

Burstin toasted bere, firmly ground


Caisie straw basket (carried on shoulders)

Camsho rude or ill-tempered

Claik to talk idly

Concordedly cooly,contentedly

Croilan failing in health


Daiskit stupid/slow

Demel to lift water with small can out of a larger one

Doon-fa sickness epilepsy

Dort to take offence

Druck o’ sweat a drench of perspiration

Dunder to make a loud noise


Eum mad or frenzied

Eun a disagreeable smell

Eetch a heavy kind of hoe


Fainfu glad or affectionate

Fang something valuable which is discovered

Feeflin working slowly or listlessly

Fimister excitement through fear

Fornent opposite


Gappas a blockhead / stupid person

Gee mood or notion

Glide went array (“squint”)

Gluff sudden fright

Grimleens twilight


Haedalt frivolous person

Heisk excited over a trifling matter

Hilderbogie a silly person

Hosted coughed

Howdie a midwife


Ill-hivered ill-tempered

Ill-vedyid intending to do evil

Iper stagnant muddy water


Jubish suspicious

Jaik a large tin mug


Kepsweevil to capsize

Kinlit unsteady wind

Kist a chest

Kleebo slight blow for correction

Klimsin parched with thirst


Laivagan gossiping

Leesom soft, pliable, agreeable

Lippen to expect

Loot to bend down

Lue lukewarm


Maenless impatient

Mirr tremor/vibration

Muggity fine rain/ very close atmosphere (also “muggity-feu”)


Nabal greedy, mean

Naevs fists

Naskan eating secretly

Niff clever or supple (fit)


Ootmoughted exhausted

Owse to boil out water

Oxter armpit

Oyce shallow arm of the sea which is dry at ebb tide


Pechan breathing fast

Pernickety over- particular / fastidious

Pleep low,whining tone

Piver to tremble or quiver


Quark cough with a choking sound


Ramesh/Ramse rash or hurried

Ravsie rough or course / disheveled

Rift to belch through the mouth

Rive to tear


Sabbid soaked through

Scurt armful

Shilpid sour,acid

Skeet a covered taunt, insinuation

Skrunt mean (shabby) person

Sluan lazy fellow

Stroup mouth of a teapot or kettle

Swack supple, strong (“fit”)


Tiftan throbbing with pain

Tontie childish

Trimsin restless

Trowie sickly,indisposed

Tullyo a (wordy) quarrel


Ununyafu slightly indisposed

Unkin strange / unknown


Vansom ill to please

Vonna strong stentorian voice

Voar spring / seed time


Waersay craving for “dainty” food/something to whet the appetite

Waff smell /odour

Wally large

Weel-faured good looking

Whess breathe loudly and rapidly (panting)


Yark space between thumb and forefinger

Yetlin a girdle

Yeuky itchy

Orkney Dialect

The interior of an old Orkney house.

By Dr Tom Rendall, Orkney Museum.

The inspiration for my studies of the Orkney dialect was generated by a lifelong interest in the way dialect was used in Orkney and the variations that provide such a mosaic of nuances, words phrases and idioms. The way of life in Orkney has changed over the past century as a result of movement of people through migration and emigration along with the development of better transport links. Demographic changes as a result of the decision of islanders to leave their homes have encouraged the development of new networks of people from outside Orkney.

Ploughing with an ox.

The inspiration for my studies of the Orkney dialect was generated by a lifelong interest in the way dialect was used in Orkney and the variations that provide such a mosaic of nuances, words phrases and idioms. The way of life in Orkney has changed over the past century as a result of movement of people through migration and emigration along with the development of better transport links. Demographic changes as a result of the decision of islanders to leave their homes have encouraged the development of new networks of people from outside Orkney.

Early tractor, early 20th century.

Although it is important to internalise and rationalise personal feelings and emotions, it is equally instructive to consider externalities and the ways in which those might impinge on the continuity of an island community. The islands of Orkney are perhaps vulnerable yet relatively stable; able to maintain a form of equilibrium; sustainable yet subject to unknown or potential threats from external economic and social forces. Dialect is an emotive subject and is part of the culture and heritage of Orkney. The English language evolves with the passage of time so variations in the way people use local vernacular will not remain stable. The inevitability of change cannot be ignored but the impact of the transformation, and the ways in which those changes are perceived by the people of Orkney, is central to the acceptance of transition and development of society in the county.

Grinding bere barley on a quernstone.

Some islanders might think that dialect is in danger of extinction and that there is little impetus or motivation to save it as a way of communication. The reason for the demise is often directed at the impact of the migration to the islands by people from other regions of the United Kingdom. The media influence is perceived as another contributory factor to the destruction of the Orkney tongue.

In this first part of the blog I will look at the origins of the dialect and look at how it developed into the Orcadian tongue used today.

Pictish symbol stones, cross slab and ogham inscribed stone. Picts Gallery, Orkney Museum.
Pictish symbol stone from Burrian Broch, Harray.

We need to cast our minds back 2000 years when Orkney was part of the Pictish kingdom .One of the enduring debates or discussions between historians and archaeologists and is on the subject of the fate of the Picts. Orkney was part of the Pictish kingdom from 300 – 800 AD. The size of the indigenous population of Orkney about 800 AD is not known but it would have been made up of Picts and Irish monks. Remains of churches and chapel sites are still be found in Orkney. When the people of Scandinavian lands arrived in Orkney, therefore, they would have found this mix of holy people and individuals who held allegiance to another kingdom.

The Picts may have spoken at least two languages: P- Celtic and Q- Celtic. P- Celtic was the language spoken in Strathclyde and Wales with Q – Celtic related to early Old Irish. There would have been some Irish Gaelic as monks inhabited some of the islands such as Papa Westray and Papa Stronsay.

A Victorian imagining of what a Viking ship looked like, before the discovery of the Gokstad ship. This is taken from the 1873 translation of Orkneyinga Saga.

There is no general agreement on what actually happened when the Scandinavians arrived in Orkney and there is no documentary evidence of the way in which they transformed the way of life. It has been mentioned by Hugh Marwick and others that there were Scandinavian settlers in Orkney long before the mass migration in the early 9th Century (Marwick 1929, 1992). As their ability to develop bigger boats increased so did their ambitions and their need to explore other lands. It is unlikely that the Picts and Irish monks were totally surprised by their appearance around 800 AD. It is possible that some of the population may have moved back to the north of Scotland leaving their land to the invading Norse people.

The Scar boat burial grave goods from Sanday, on display in the Viking Gallery, Orkney Museum.

The arrival of the Vikings in the 9th Century heralded the appearance of a new language. Based on West Norse, the Orkney Norn developed and was the predominant language of the islands for about 700 years. From the 15th Century onwards, however, the influence of Scottish English increased and, since the middle of the 18th Century it has been the language of Orkney.

Stanley Cursiter’s study of Dr Hugh Marwick (1881-1965); Orkney Islands Council Collection.

Dr Hugh Marwick (1929) undertook his research on the Orkney Norn and this provides the corpus of knowledge of the Norn along with Barnes (1998). Since the original publication of The Orkney Norn, a number of Scotland-wide surveys of lexical use have come to completion’ Since the 1920s, however, The Scottish National Dictionary (Grant and Murison 1929-76) has been completed. This work provided a greater depth in our understanding of the use of Scots lexis. In combination with work associated with the Linguistic Survey of Scotland (Mather and Speitel 1985) it is useful in giving an overall picture of the linguistic situation in Scotland. Large-scale patterns sometimes obscure smaller-scale patterns; this is may cause some anomalies in regions such as Orkney which have relatively small populations but, historically, considerable variation in word and meaning from place to place. As Millar (2007a) has said; “For the scholar of Orkney dialect in particular, there is little use in seeing that a word is found in Orkney; he or she would like to know in which islands or parishes a word is found.”

The dust jacket of The Orkney Norn by Hugh Marwick, 1929.

For centuries the Orkney Islands spoke with a Norse/Scots dialect, which replaced the Norn, which itself derived from West Norse. Although the exact date of Norse settlement in Orkney is not known it was likely that it extended over generations and possibly was complete by 900AD.

The settlers would have borrowed some words from native languages used in Orkney possibly based on Celtic sources but…. “The Norsemen were masters; they had no incentive to learn the native tongue…” (Marwick 1929 :xvi). According to Marwick the “Scotticizing” of Orkney would have been rapid from the middle of the 15th Century with the pledging of Orkney to Scotland in 1468.

It is difficult to know what the Norn was like before it was superseded by the language spoken in Orkney today but Marwick acknowledges the impact of the Scandinavian language and the way contemporary islanders use it albeit unwittingly:
“The speech of Orkney today must be termed Scots, but it is still richly stocked with words which were part and parcel of the Orkney Norn” (Marwick 1929: xxvii).

A Birsay fisherman, c1900.

Orcadians could be said to have become increasingly bi-dialectal, speaking an Orcadian influenced Scottish Standard English together with Orcadian dialect of varying broadness and strength in a diglossic speech situation. The dialect spoken in Orkney is, therefore, part of Insular Scots language with many words base on the Orkney Norn and other lexical items used throughout Scotland.

Children harrowing a field.

Hugh Marwick has been an important starting point for scholars who are interested in the background to the dialect used in Orkney.

The work of two lesser known but equally important writers – Walter Traill Dennison and John Firth must be mentioned here They published their work prior to the appearance of Marwick’s The Orkney Norn in 1929.

Walter Traill Dennison.

Walter Traill Dennison (1825–1894) was a farmer and folklorist. He was a native of Sanday where he collected local folk tales. He published these, many in the local Orcadian dialect, in 1880 under the title The Orcadian Sketch-Book.

Until his death in 1894, Walter Traill Dennison collected and recorded a valuable store of traditional local folklore, much of it concerning the sea and its mythical creatures such as mermaids. Through Dennison’s work, many Orcadian poems and stories exist today that might otherwise have been lost. He is responsible for bringing the dialect to the knowledge of the people and was one of the earliest writers in the vernacular.

Title page of Dennison’s ‘The Orcadian Sketch-Book’, 1880.

Although the writing appeared as folk tales it was, nevertheless, a significant contribution to the collection of dialect words used in Orkney during the 19th century. In The Orcadian Sketch Book Dennison included a glossary of dialect words which supplemented the tales and poems in his book. This provided the reader with a guide to the meaning of the words but also highlights the use of dialect in the 19th century.

Dennison wrote “The author’s principal object has been to preserve the
dialect of his native islands from that oblivion to which all unwritten dialects are doomed and at the same time to present a part of our great human nature as it really existed, unsophisticated by the rules of polite society unelevated by education and unpolished by art.” (1880:vii)

John Firth.

John Firth (1838 – 1922) was a joiner/wheelwright who lived in the parish of Firth. He was interested in all aspects of Orcadian life and wrote notes and journals of his observations. His book Reminiscences of an Orkney Parish was finally published in 1920 only two years before his death. This book also included a glossary of Orkney words as Firth was keen to promote the value of the local vernacular. He wrote: “The old Orkney dialect, with its quaint and peculiar diction, destined to no immediate or early extinction and wherever Orcadians meet in all parts of the world, its rich and beautiful accent and melodious tones awakens the most tender sentiments and emotions, and recall the most hallowed associations and cherished memories.” (1974:146)

Title page of Firth’s ‘Reminiscences of an Orkney Parish’, 1920.

The work of Dennison and Firth constitutes a rare collection of stories and tales of the lives of the people of Orkney in past centuries. They both had vision and the foresight to collect the words and phrases of the people. They also had a passion for bringing the dialect of the islands to a wider world. Dennison was the first writer to produce work in the dialect while Firth was able to highlight the value and the identity of the Orkney tongue.

Singling neeps, thinning out young turnip plants.


Dennison, Walter Traill, (1880) The Orcadian Sketch Book, Kirkwall, William Peace and Sons.

Firth, John (1974) Reminiscences of an Orkney Parish, Stromness, The Orkney Natural History Society.

Marwick, H. (1929, 1992) The Orkney Norn Dunfermline and Oxford WIA Murray -originally published by Oxford University Press.

Cutting oats with a scythe.